The First Thanksgiving: What really happened

The following account explains why I choose to celebrate what I call “Gratitude Day” rather than the traditional “Thanksgiving” propaganda taught in US schools. Gratitude is incredibly powerful and involves a deep recognition of the gifts and sacredness of all Life, including our bountiful planet. I live every day as Gratitude Day, but I like to express some extra appreciation when the rest of the country’s in full on Thanksgiving mode. Regular blog readers know I’m a fan of the Wildwood Tarot, with its deep forest wisdom. This post reminds me of some of those messages that resonate so strongly with my heart. Thanks to Ann at exopermaculture for posting this version of the story, which more appropriately honors the Native Americans.

The First Thanksgiving: What really happened.

November 14, 2007

P.M. Russell

Historical Perspectives

THE WAY AMERICA envisions that first Thanksgiving, goes something like this: Civilized European pilgrims set out across the Atlantic Ocean, and were rewarded with an entire continent of untold wealth. Oh sure there were a few unclothed savages already there, but they were not a problem that couldn’t be dealt with. Journals and letters written by those first settlers contain accounts of plundering native stores of food, tools and furs. If the Pilgrims found it, they took it.

After working, praying and surviving a bitter winter, the Pilgrim Fathers brought in a bountiful harvest produced by careful tending of seeds that they had brought from home. Inviting their heathen neighbors to join them, the Pilgrims gave thanks for their New World and its riches at a meal consisting of turkey, squash, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Afterwards, the men sat around smoking and telling stories while the women cleaned up.

Now for the Native American side of the story:

What really happened was more like this: After two months and two deaths on the Mayflower crossing in 1620, the Pilgrims landed on the coast of Massachusetts, where an Algonquin-speaking group, the Wampanoags, lived. Clad in leather garments (adding furs during the winter) these native peoples skillfully cultivated corn, beans, squashes and pumpkins; hunted the woods for deer, elk and bear; and fished for salmon and herring. Like other members of what anthropologists now call the Woodland Culture, the Wampanoags looked upon deer, fish and turtle as totemic siblings, and had deep respect for every natural creature. When they hunted, they left offerings for other forest inhabitants, and they would never think of planting or harvesting without giving thanks for the fertility of Mother Earth.

From where the natives sat — especially one named Squanto, who’d learned English after having been sold into slavery a few years earlier, these Pilgrims were in deep buffalo chips. The wheat brought from Europe was completely unsuited to the New England soil and failed to germinate. Half the settlers died during the first winter. Squanto and his friends took pity on this sorry situation and brought venison and furs to these unfortunate white men. He taught them how to plant corn using fish as fertilizer, how to dig clams, how to tap maple trees for syrup.

The Algonquin tribes already had the custom of celebrating six different thanksgiving festivals during the year, and one of those happened to coincide with a dinner party thrown by Miles Standish and company. Standish invited Squanto and a few of his friends and their families to come on down and share a meal. More than 90 Indians showed up. The Pilgrim menu wasn’t going to cover that many guests. So a few of the Algonquin men went out and came back with five deer, enough for three solid days of cross-cultural feasting. Here’s what was actually on that menu: venison, wild duck, wild geese, eels, clams, squash, corn bread, berries and nuts.

That meal was one of the last untroubled moments the whites and natives spent together. Within 50 years, most of the Woodland peoples had been killed, claimed by European diseases or — if lucky — disappeared into the woods. Today, there are still 500 Wampanoags living in New England. They do not celebrate the American Thanksgiving.

7 responses to this post.

  1. The Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect example of censorship and the rewriting of truth. A portrait painted of the friendly Indians and the openhearted pilgrims coming together to feast after a long, sorry winter is accepted and tolerated by the American community. But this portrait is not correct. The story is much deeper than that; so much deeper that the Native American Indian community calls this day – The National Day of Mourning – and stages rallies to protest the holiday. Their reasons are valid. The true story of Thanksgiving is not something a country should be proud of.



    • I agree. The true story of Thanksgiving is the opposite of gratitude. It’s an example of the attitudes and actions that got us into the mess we’re in today. Gratitude I celebrate … but the Native Americans and all indigenous cultures have a much more finely developed sense of gratitude than Pilgrim conquerors.



  2. […] most memorable and favorite “Thanksgivings” or “Gratitude Day,” as Laura Bruno prefers to call it, actually were with Laura when I used to live in the Tahoe/Reno area and she lived in Northern […]



  3. Posted by Kedali on November 7, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    The history of the world is violent. Look at how brutal the Indians of Mexico and South America were to their own people by cutting out their hearts and chopping off their heads to sacrifice to the gods. Conquest and wars have wiped out entire peoples throughout time.
    I have read “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, an accounting of most of the native tribes in the US that were lied to, cheated, and murdered to make way for American “progress”. If you haven’t read it, you should. I say this because I understand how Europeans destroyed the native American way of life. And to me, it was awful, but another example of conquest in a long line of conquests dating to way back before the Romans were conquering Germania(but to you, you probably think what right did they have killing all of their neighbors to the north?) Violence is a hard fact in history and in life.
    So why do you need to trash an American institution? They DID have a peaceful feast because the Indians saved the Europeans after a hard and deadly winter (that’s how I remember that lesson when I was in school), so I celebrate that happy feast. Why can’t you? Because you need to tell everyone how smart you are?
    The Indians ended up on the bad side of American history. A once proud group of tribes that spoke with eloquence and beauty and respected their land more than their conquerors. I would be surprised if their look back on American history would have anything at all positive in it…to them it was all tragedies. But they lost to the vast numbers of their conquerors. Sad, but true. Sad, too, that they don’t share our remembrance of a peaceful time. They can protest all they want…you know why? Because our great country allows it, which you can’t say about many countries in the world.
    Thank you for your illumination of why Thanksgiving really should not be a happy day when families can be together and share their love for each other. But, I’ll be ignoring your argument because you’re really a negative type person and I would not want to break bread with you…you’d ruin the day!



    • LOL, wishing you and yours a happy day in whatever way YOU choose to honor it. I prefer gratitude for all the abundance of Earth and for connections with friends and family, which last time I checked wasn’t the definition of “a negative type person” who “needs to tell everyone how smart you are.” Sounds like this article struck a nerve. I personally don’t choose to celebrate violence, although I am well aware of its existence. A happy feast followed by “gifts” of blankets laced with small pox along with the complete destruction of a way of life isn’t my idea of peace and gratitude. Perhaps it’s yours, which is why I won’t shed tears over not breaking bread with you. Have a blessed day and enjoy your superiority, just like the Pilgrims. 😉



  4. Posted by andw on May 31, 2016 at 6:47 am

    If you look at the story of the blankets with small pox, that happened like 1760, thats 140 years after the first thanksgiving and it was done by a brittish guy who fought against americans in the revolutionary war, he was no american. Also I believe that many natives died by diseases spread by the spanish 100 years before the english stared to colonize.



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